In the News  Archive

State budget includes money for water treatment upgrades

April 2, 2015
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By Amanda May Metzger

The state put aside $200 million to flow down the pipeline to help municipalities pay for wastewater treatment and drinking water infrastructure over the next three years.

The plan, called the “New York State Water Infrastructure Improvement Act of 2015,” establishes a program that will be part of the state budget in future years. It will have a $50 million pot this year and $75 million for each of the next two fiscal years. The funding can help lessen the financial blow of paying off long-term debt on costly projects.

Communities will be eligible for up to $5 million each, and the limit the state will pay is 60 percent of the project cost — “which is better than the zero percent that was available yesterday,” said John Sheehan, spokesman for the environmental advocacy group, the Adirondack Council.

According to a recent analysis by a coalition of groups including the Adirondack Council, $12.7 billion in clean water funding is needed in the state. State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli noted an $800 million gap for annual state spending on wastewater and $300 million for drinking water projects. This winter, a deep freeze caused problems with aging infrastructure throughout the state.

Some of the money could go to communities in the Adirondack Park. While the park is less populated than other parts of the state, it hosts 10 million annual visitors who use its infrastructure.

“This new program offers hope to small, Adirondack communities that qualify for clean water loans from the state but can’t afford to repay multimillion debts,” said Willie Janeway, director of the Adirondack Council.

Communities often go through the state Environmental Facilities Corp. to secure low-interest financing for these projects, but then taxpayers living in the water or sewer districts can be strapped with paying the debt for years.

Adirondack Association of Towns and Villages President and Wells Town Supervisor Brian Towers said anything set aside for infrastructure is “a positive,” although $200 million over three years “doesn’t go very far when it comes to wastewater and drinking-water infrastructure.”

He used the example of Inlet, Hamilton County, where a new wastewater treatment system that serves about 300 customers came with a pricetag of about $4 million.

“It’s the kind of money that the local taxpayers, quite frankly, don’t have,” Towers said.

Towers also noted that communities cannot raise property taxes to pay for such projects because of the tax cap.

“There was never a deduction or write-off of capital expenditures as part of the cap ... Now you’ve got communities struggling to pay for water and sewer upgrades and you can’t raise taxes,” Towers said. “I think the real issue is with those communities that already have wastewater (treatment plants) and need to upgrade them.”

The village of Lake George will soon have to decide whether to renovate or rebuild its wastewater treatment plant. The plant’s nitrate discharge has exceeded state standards.

An engineering study is determining what the village should do. The cost is still unknown, but if the village has to rebuild, the cost could reach eight figures. Lake George Department of Public Works Superintendent Dave Harrington said it was too early to comment on the new program, but the village will be looking into the grant details.

Also around the lake, the town of Bolton was awarded $30,000 from the state toward an engineering report to evaluate its wastewater treatment plant. The town of Hague and village of Lake George were given similar grants.

“The real big thing is the $1.5 billion set aside for the seven (upstate) regions to compete for economic development money,” Towers said, referring to the Upstate Revitalization Fund.

The money will be split into awards to seven regional economic development regions.

Towers said the North Country region has done well in the statewide economic development grant competitions.

“Certainly, a lot of people have expressed concerns on how that is going to pan out,” Towers said.

He said when the plan was first introduced, some communities feared only three regions would get the money and the other four would get nothing.

“It does look like that plan is not going to leave anybody out in the cold,” he said.

The DEC also received funding for a staffing increase of 36 people for spill response, habitat protection and a new Office of Public Protection academy for Forest Rangers and Environmenal Conservation Officers. The Adirondack Council was pushing for some restoration of Adirondack Park Agency staff, too, but that didn’t happen.

“I think this compares favorably with previous years. There’s a lot to be happy about in this budget for the (Adirondack) Park,” Sheehan said. “We got clean water funding and an increase in the EPF.”

The budget increased the Environmental Protection Fund by $15 million to $177 million. Boosts in the fund included an increase in Smart Growth planning grants to communities, from $400,000 to $600,000; and a $1.15 million boost in invasive species control programs, from $4.7 million to $5.85 million. The increase will pay for the Adirondacks boat inspection and decontamination program, now in development.

One element the Adirondack Council decried was the removal of $41 million from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative green energy fund. The money was moved to the general fund, meaning it is no longer earmarked for green energy, Sheehan said.

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